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THE BEST OF 2007 | ART

Meaningful art? Priceless

December 16, 2007|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT

Sometimes it seemed as if three out of four art-world conversations in 2007 were about the booming market. How high will it go, is it a bubble, will it burst, is money debasing art? The subject is like real estate chatter for the pretentious -- which is not to say insignificant, only that it's almost never interesting or insightful. Especially when there were other things to talk about, things like these:

This was a banner year for midcareer and full-scale museum retrospectives, homegrown and traveling, in Southern California. Francis Alys, Karl Benjamin, Dan Flavin, Mary Heilmann, Robert Irwin, Kim Jones, Gordon Matta-Clark, Takashi Murakami, Rufino Tamayo, Richard Tuttle -- from Santa Barbara to San Diego, has there been a richer, more wide-ranging roster?

The UCLA Hammer Museum's exquisite "Vija Celmins: A Drawings Retrospective" didn't include her powerful paintings and sculptures, but it was a revelation. Celmins' drawings are about touch, the tactile press of graphite on paper. But her subjects -- the ocean's surface, starry night skies, spider webs, Jupiter's moon -- are usually things one cannot touch. The quiet tension creates an imaginative sense of wondrous yearning.

The 19th century British Romantic painter John Constable pretty much invented the modern image of England as a natural haven of industriousness and grit. At the Huntington, "Constable's Great Landscapes: The Six-Foot Paintings" beautifully articulated his extraordinary blend of invention and ambition.

At LACMA, the stunning "The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820" was an unprecedented survey of painting, sculpture and decorative arts that have been overlooked, underrated and misunderstood ever since the modern discipline of art history was invented more than a century ago. With L.A. emerging as America's Latino capital, the result was the year's most important show.

Charles Ray spent nearly a decade working with Japanese craftsman on "Hinoki," a full-size doppelganger-sculpture of a fallen oak tree assembled from scores of interlocking blocks of carved cypress and shown at Regen Projects II. Seeing the ghostly double will reverberate in the memory for at least that long.

"WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" continued MOCA's invaluable habit of organizing comprehensive, overdue surveys of critical developments in art since 1945. It also spawned welcome related events, such as the Municipal Art Gallery's "Multiple Vantage Points: Southern California Women Artists, 1980-2006."

The eight monumental assemblage sculptures by Nigerian-based El Anatsui at UCLA's Fowler Museum spun humble trash into spectacular treasure. The artist is a venerable figure in Africa, but this was the year's most memorable West Coast debut.

The Cleveland Museum of Art holds an incomparable collection of early Christian, Byzantine and medieval European art. The Ohio museum's recent closure for expansion and renovation heralded L.A.'s good fortune, though, as a staggering selection of those treasures visits the Getty Museum (through Jan. 20).

The Orange County Museum of Art's "Birth of the Cool: California Art, Culture and Design at Mid-Century" (through Jan. 6) offers a pungent, context-rich reconsideration of the emergence of hard-edge abstract painting, a cataclysmic event in 20th century American art.

The Getty Museum's August agreement to return 40 disputed antiquities to Italy, including a few of the collection's greatest works, brought closure to a legal and cultural battle that had been fought for decades.

The worst

A booming art market met a lack of spine, as major museums (including Buffalo's Albright-Knox and St. Louis) and college venues (in Virginia, Tennessee and Massachusetts) sought to monetize their art collections by auctioning major works. Almost as gross: The once-pristine Art Institute of Chicago decided to rent a big chunk of its unparalleled Impressionist collection to Fort Worth's super-rich Kimbell Art Museum for a reported $2 million.

Colleges continued the slide toward offering studio doctorate programs for artists, ensuring more crummy academic art and perpetrating a professionalizing hoax on unsuspecting students. At least four programs exist, with CalArts and Rhode Island School of Design reportedly considering the plan.

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christopher.knight@latimes.com

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